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Stetson Bennett always had star potential. Just ask Georgia’s scout team.

Peach Bowl: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Ohio State, 8 p.m. Eastern on Saturday (ESPN)

Stetson Bennett will lead Georgia against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
8 min

Five years ago, when the legend of Stetson Bennett remained confined to Georgia’s practice fields, only endorsements from those around him offered a glimpse into the quarterback’s potential. Those teammates may have noticed Bennett’s talent as he evaded defenders and launched deep balls downfield, but he was just a walk-on with expectations that matched his undersized frame.

During his freshman season, Bennett led the Bulldogs’ scout team, the group that helps the defensive starters prepare by mimicking each opponent. The unheralded unit features promising players who need to develop and plenty of walk-ons. Some grew up Georgia fans, and this served as their path to the roster. They hope for playing time, usually late in lopsided games or through roles on special teams, and after college, life moves on.

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As the scout-team quarterback in 2017, Bennett threw passes to a wide receiver who now works in medical device sales and another who’s an actor. His tight end became an insurance broker. He operated behind a center who’s a high school assistant coach and another lineman pursuing automotive photography.

Then there’s Bennett, the 5-foot-11 quarterback who went from the scout team to a junior college, then returned to Georgia as a backup with a scholarship and became the starter on a national championship team. At 25 years old and in his sixth season of college football, Bennett has a chance to win another with the top-seeded Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff. He’s two wins away — first against No. 4 Ohio State in Atlanta on Saturday, then in the title game — from capping his Georgia career in historic fashion.

An array of prolific passers, SEC champions and highly touted quarterback recruits couldn’t end a national title drought that had lasted since 1980. Bennett, the former walk-on, instead kissed the golden trophy in January — the pinnacle he hopes to revisit soon.

“It’s a fairy-tale storyline,” said Wyatt Payne, a scout-team wide receiver from 2015 to 2018. “And if it didn’t happen, you probably wouldn’t believe it.”

Payne’s father had a mutual friend of the Bennett family, so he had heard about Bennett before meeting his new teammate. Bennett, who wore a U.S. Postal Service hat to stand out at quarterback camps, had an impressive high school career in tiny Blackshear, Ga., and when Payne watched Bennett’s film, he thought, “Damn, this kid is nice.”

Payne described the freshman version of Bennett as a “skinny kid” with “curly, big hair.” Other teammates offered similar assessments, including “nerdy, scrawny-looking dude,” “goofy but confident” and “didn’t have that prototypical quarterback look.” Payne was surprised this was the same player who torched high school defenses.

“Not to be mean or anything,” Payne said, “but I wasn’t expecting much.”

Nobody was. Except maybe Bennett.

Listed at 172 pounds as a freshman, Bennett projected as a scout team lifer or a dependable backup — not the title-winning Heisman Trophy finalist he became.

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Bennett showcased his shiftiness and versatility as he impersonated opposing quarterbacks, especially Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield when Georgia prepared for its 2017 playoff semifinal. Bennett tried to “embarrass” the first-string defense, said Davin Bellamy, a starting defensive end. Defenders couldn’t tackle quarterbacks in practice, so they would plow through the offensive line and tag Bennett as he scrambled. The freshman quarterback claimed: “​​That wasn’t a sack. You know you wouldn’t have gotten me.” Five years later, Bellamy agrees.

The scout-team offense “had never seen a freshman come in and disobey orders the way he did,” said Thomas Swilley, the unit’s center.

A coach would circle the route of the receiver to whom Bennett should throw and relay instructions such as: “Hey, Swilley, slide to the left. Stetson throw the post.”

Before the players broke the huddle, Swilley remembers Bennett saying he didn’t plan to throw to the post. That receiver would be double-covered. Instead, Bennett wanted to throw the go route, and Swilley needed to pick up the blitz coming from the right side. Before the snap, Bennett gave another nod of affirmation. Swilley said he slid right and Bennett threw “one of the prettiest balls I’ve ever seen for a touchdown.”

Swilley remembers this moment vividly because afterward Coach Kirby Smart yelled at Bennett while shaking his visor, but Bennett “would do that stuff all the time,” changing plays from a pass to a run and so on, Swilley said.

Bennett had the arm to sling passes alongside 6-foot-5 Jacob Eason during bat-down drills meant to help defenders prepare for Hail Marys. Bennett is a “crafty guy” with “magical skills,” and he throws a “good, soft ball,” scout-team wide receiver Steven Van Tiflin said. Even then, Bennett juked defenders with the same dead-leg move that Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers called “annoying” while praising the quarterback’s mobility.

“He’s found the perfect balance of being a polished quarterback but also having that scout-team Stetson in him where he creates plays, runs for touchdowns, dives in the end zone and puts his body on the line,” Bellamy said. “That’s the reckless abandon he had when he was a freshman practicing against us.”

The best compliment to the scout team was the sound of Smart screaming at the defense. He would tell the team to redo the play by yelling, “Reload it!” That was the phrase on T-shirts given to standout scout-team players each week, and it was shouted many times “on Stetson Bennett’s account,” said Miles McGinty, a former scout-team tight end.

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It had become clear that Bennett had the skill to play somewhere and he probably wouldn’t get that opportunity at Georgia. The Bulldogs had Jake Fromm as the incumbent starter and five-star recruit Justin Fields on his way in. Bennett’s teammates saw that potential, and some encouraged him to transfer. They didn’t think he would start one day at a Power Five program, but they felt confident he could have a prolific career at a lower level.

From the time he walked on, Bennett said, “bits and pieces of plays” assured him he could be the starter. He transferred to Jones (Miss.) College in search of that opportunity somewhere else. He left Georgia, the alma mater of both his parents, and assumed he would never return, all because he badly wanted to play and believed he was more than a backup.

“I had the guts to go chase it,” Bennett said, “and then chase it more once I realized that I’m not there yet.”

After a season of junior college, Bennett planned to head to Louisiana Lafayette, and then Smart jumped in with a scholarship offer. Bennett returned to Georgia to be Fromm’s backup in 2019. When Fromm left for the NFL, the Bulldogs brought in two transfer quarterbacks, then started a redshirt freshman in the opener rather than handing the job to the former walk-on. Bennett started five games, but after a pair of losses, JT Daniels, a transfer from Southern California, took control of the offense during the season’s final stretch.

“We, as coaches, did everything we could to not give him the opportunity,” Smart told reporters this season. “He just kept banging away at the door, and he was very persistent.”

Daniels opened the 2021 season as Georgia’s starter. Bennett wrestled his way into that position only when Daniels suffered injuries, but Bennett held on for good, all the way to the national championship.

Fans didn’t immediately embrace Bennett, and his former teammates hurried to his defense in conversations with friends, colleagues and strangers. Daniel Harper Jr., a scout-team linebacker in 2017, called himself Bennett’s “biggest supporter online,” refusing to allow “any slander on Stetson Bennett’s name.”

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Payne, who works in Athens, finally noticed the sentiment shifted. A national title, especially in a town that had gone so long without one, buys that respect. For the first time in his winding career, Bennett began this season as Georgia’s starter, and then he led the Bulldogs to an undefeated season and another playoff berth.

Bennett finished fourth in the Heisman race, and during the ceremony, Payne got emotional, thinking, “Oh, my God, that’s my boy, and he’s doing that thing.”

Other former scout-team players understand the remarkable nature of Bennett’s path. They started in the same place, as walk-ons dreaming for a chance to play. They watched Bennett’s rise as they began their careers outside football. And from afar, they shared in the joy because Bennett is “one of us,” Swilley said. “Look what one of us is doing.”